You’re sitting on the train in New York City, scrolling through restaurant reviews on your mobile phone. The train lumbers to a stop at the station, the doors open, and from the corner of your eye you see passengers disembarking. Just as the doors start to close, a hand appears in front of your face and disappears in a flash.
Your phone has been snatched, and the train is already leaving the station before you could even see who took it.
Travellers rely on trains to get from A to B, but the relationship is bitter-sweet. Robberies, assaults and cunning scams are common on trains all around the world, with unsuspecting travellers often the target.
We outline five of the most common train scams to look out for and how you can stop them in their tracks.
Where in the world are crimes common on trains?
The New York City Subway, the Berlin U-Bahn, the Bullet trains of Japan and the London Underground - crimes occur on just about every famous railway system you can name, all around the world:
- In New York City, there is more than one crime committed on the subway every day.
- In Japan, groping and other sexual assaults are so commonplace on trains that Women-Only carriages are popular in Tokyo.
- In Mumbai, groups of men were found to be posing as ‘railway police’ and robbing unsuspecting travellers.
- In London, King’s Cross station recorded a staggering 457 crimes in just 12 months, including more than 200 cases of theft and 87 violent incidents.
These may be serious cases of crimes on the world’s railways, but unfortunately for travellers, stolen mobile phones aren’t the worst of it. However, theft of passenger property is by far the most common crime committed on trains around the world, and the culprits can be cunning scammers. Let’s look into five train scams to watch out for and how you can avoid them.
Five common train scams around the world
From bed-stealers, pick-pockets, fake tickets and ‘overbooked’ trains, there are countless variations of train scams that can leave unsuspecting travellers out of pocket and in danger. Some scams can be easily avoided, yet others are far more difficult to spot. Here are five common train scams found around the world.
1. The overbooked train scam
Navigating a bustling train station in an unfamiliar city can be stressful at the best of times. Throw in stifling heat, heavy luggage and a foreign language, and you can soon find yourself feeling completely overwhelmed.
So when a man wearing official uniform approaches to say the train has unfortunately been overbooked, directing you to the bus stand instead, it can be easy to take his word for it.
Variations of the ‘overbooked’ train scam are found all around the world, but they are particularly common at the crowded train stations of Asia. Scammers target travellers who look to be confused or out of their element, telling them their train is overbooked and ushering them towards the bus stand instead. This is even after they’ve purchased their train ticket. They are then forced to pay for the bus ticket and the scammer earns a commission from the driver.
These scammers may even call a friend by radio to confirm their story, leaving you feeling like you have no choice but to comply with their instructions.
How to avoid the overbooked train scam
We know how difficult it can be to stay composed on a jostling train station in an unfamiliar country. However, one of the most effective ways to ward of potential scammers is to act cool, calm and collected. Scammers like these target disoriented foreign travellers, so present yourself as in control and confident and make them seek out an easier target.
If someone does approach you with instructions that you find suspicious, approach the official ticket box of the station to confirm their information.
2. The ‘who’s been sleeping in my bed?!’ scam
The 12-hour Bangkok to Chiang Mai train ride is one of the most popular rail routes in Thailand, and the perfect way to soak in the serene South-East Asian landscape. Buying a sleeper class train ticket is by far the best way to enjoy the long journey. After all, 12 hours sweating upright on a train seat can test even the most seasoned of travellers.
However, it’s common for local passengers to sleep where they please, even if they haven’t bought a sleeper class ticket. So while you may be ready to hit the hay when night falls, you may find your bed is already occupied. You try to wake them but they feign a deep sleep and refuse to budge.
This can seem more inconvenient than anything else, but being forced out of your allocated sleeper seat has some potential dangers. For one, negotiating with the unwanted bedfellow can leave you distracted from your bags, making you vulnerable to pickpockets. Situations like these can even be coordinated by scammers who work in teams.
Second, it’s common for carriage guards to notify travellers when they reach their desired destination. If you aren’t in your allocated seat or sleeper, you risk missing a notification from the guard and missing your stop.
How to avoid train scams in South East Asia
If you’re embarking on a long train journey in Asia and want to be sure you get what you paid for, seek the help of the carriage guard to show you to your seat. They’ll be far better placed to assist if you find it occupied with an intruder.
3. The bag carriers scam
What’s the best way to lose your luggage on a train station? Hand it over willingly to a thief.
The bag carriers scam is simple: a scammer spots you struggling to move your luggage around the station and offers to assist. Before you can even thank them, your bags have disappeared along with the scammer. Easy as that!
How to I avoid the bag carrier scam
There are three easy ways to avoid being stung by this simple scam:
- Don’t accept help from anyone other than an official train station employee.
- Don’t leave any bags on the station while you load your luggage onto the train one-by-one.
- Don’t let your luggage slip out of your sight, even for a second!
Always keep your luggage at the front of your feet, and any valuable items in a secure day bag or money belt. A good habit is to move your day pack to your chest when moving through busy stations. If you’re travelling only for the day, pack only what you need and leave your valuable possessions locked in the safe back at your hotel.
And remember, our policy doesn’t cover you if loss or damage to your possessions occurs when your luggage is left out of sight.
4. The ticket machine trick
The ticket machine is one of the first places scammers look to find distressed tourists. Grappling with a ticket machine written in another language, with buttons that don’t seem to work, tickets that don’t seem to exist, and a growing queue of frustrated locals behind you is a recipe for stress.
Opportunistic scammers will see this right away and spring into action, offering to help you book your ticket. But before you know if, they’ve cancelled the transaction and grabbed the money that has fallen into the change tray. Another variation of the ticket machine scam is pickpockets who will hover around the machines, waiting for unwary travellers to be distracted from their belongings.
How to avoid the ticket machine train scam
You might feel rude when you reject the assistance of a seemingly helpful local. Unfortunately, it’s often necessary. If you do find yourself in need of help when using the ticket machine, seek out an official train station employee to ask for help. Better yet, opt for buying your ticket at a staffed ticket booth so you can book your ticket from a person, not a mystery machine.
5. The blocked doorways scam
This scam involves a team of scammers working together on the station when you are disembarking from the train. They may stand shoulder to shoulder on the station, and when the doors open to let passengers off, they block their exit (often pretending not to notice). Passengers will then become frustrated and bunch together to try to squeeze through the crowd on the station, creating the perfect pickpocketing opportunity for the scammers.
Within the scrum of people, it’s easy not to notice the hand of a scammer snatching your wallet.
How to avoid the blocked doorways scam
Most thefts on train stations occur when embarking or disembarking the train, as passengers may be bunched together or distracted from their belongings. In these situations, pay close attention to your bags and keep valuables locked away on your body. Wearing a money belts beneath your shirt is a great way to deter would-be pickpockets.
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